Now that San Diego county officials are moving toward the elimination of punch-card balloting for elections, it seems like a perfectly appropriate time to reconsider the way voters actually choose their elected officials.
The usual choice, the so-called plurality method, is fast losing its luster as more and more voters decide to stay home on Election Day. In the most recent general election, for example, more than 51 percent of the county's registered voters did not to participate.
So, as the county Registrar of Voters begins to negotiate with Ohio-based Diebold Election Systems for more than $25 million worth of new touch-screen voting machines, as it announced last week, it may also want to keep an ear tilted toward the San Diego Ethics Commission, which is in the midst of revamping the city's election laws.
Buried in a commission workbook are a few pages discussing a rising trend in voting methods. Known as "instant-runoff voting," it allows voters to rank as many as five candidates in a particular race in order of preference. Its backers say it eliminates the need for two-round elections-think of the money saved-by allowing voters to indicate their runoff choices at the same time as their first choice.
By this method, if a candidate gains a majority of votes, then we have a winner. If not, then the last-place candidate is eliminated, and the ballots are recounted-but this time, the voters who chose the last-place candidate would have their second choices counted instead. This is continued until one candidate emerges with a majority of votes.
Think about it: no more primaries and probably a lot less negative campaigning, since this method requires candidates to appeal to the greatest number of voters to avoid early elimination. Backers also note that fewer elections mean less money being dumped into campaigns by special interests. It also negates the notion of so-called "spoiler" candidates, those who siphon votes from one candidate to the advantage of another.
The Center for Voting and Democracy, a Maryland-based organization spearheading the reform movement, notes that countries like Australia and Ireland have been holding instant-runoff voting (they call it "preferential voting") for decades. Alan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve Bank chairman, has insisted on its use to fill seats on the regional boards of directors. New York City uses it to elect school board and city council members. It's also used to select who will win an Oscar.
This year, voters in San Francisco and Oakland passed city charter amendments to allow instant-runoff voting. San Francisco will be using the method to determine its new mayor next year. Los Angeles is also studying the voting process.
City officials here point out that voters in San Diego would also have to approve a change to the city charter, which among other things mandates how elections are to be held.
Charles Walker, executive director of the San Diego Ethics Commission, said the voting method is "something that has been presented to the commissioners for consideration as part of their review of the campaign control ordinance." But because it is not a part of the city's Election Campaign Control Ordinance, "it is not clear when or if the commissioners will be considering it."
That would be a shame, since it's not difficult to find voters who are fed up with the current system. As one city insider put it, noting the tons of money spent in council elections: "I mean, who in their right mind, outside of the context of the political world, would spend a million dollars to get themselves a job that's only good for four years and only pays, what, $60,000? I mean, nobody would do it."